It would be very easy (and probably a little reductive) to dismiss Teen Spirit as just another example of rags-to-riches pop stardom parable, and I’m sure that many people will. It’s not what you’d call a deep or complicated film, as the story beats are predictable and not unlike just about any similarly premised film you’ve seen before. And maybe that doesn’t make it high art or a revelation or even a film I’m likely to hold close to my heart for much longer than it takes me to write this review. But Teen Spirit is a remarkably solid film that sets itself apart with so much style and effortless prestige that it’s difficult not to appreciate the efforts to elevate this story past its formula.
Hum along if you know the melody, even if you don’t know the lyrics: Violet (Elle Fanning) is the teenage daughter of Polish immigrants living on the Isle of Wight, scraping by to support her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) and their homestead in the wake of her father’s abandonment of them. She loves to sing, particularly at the karaoke bar where she works, so when the popular TV singing contest Teen Spirit starts holding auditions, she applies. As a minor, though, she needs a guardian to represent her, and fearing her mother’s no-nonsense puritanism, Violet recruits bar regular and former opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric) as a faux guardian and manager. He teaches her how to maximize her vocal potential with operatic techniques, she becomes enamored with the draw of materialism and finally being seen, they don’t exactly see eye to eye on how her potential to succeed in this world is changing her, and oh boy, here comes the chorus again.
What’s most immediately obvious about how Teen Spirit wants to set itself apart from other films in its archetypical subgenre is that it is firmly and squarely focused on observing and living with Violet. Very rarely does Violet exposit her feelings directly or state what she’s thinking for the audience’s benefit. Instead, the camera follows her through key mood-driven events that are as much about letting us know who Violet is as they are with moving the simple plot forward. Fanning gives us a character who is devoted to supporting her mother but has a talent she cannot find a proper outlet for in their rural town. She’s something of a loner, but not for lack of want for attention, just a seeming lack of options. She’s surprisingly funny at times and knows how to connect with people when it matters. Most importantly, she finds refuge in music as an escape from the monotonous struggles of her daily life, but also as an expression of her frustrations and desires.
This intense character focus translates into other aspects of the film as well, most notably in how music is employed in storytelling. Similar films use musical montage as a form of narrative shorthand to communicate the passage of time, but Teen Spirit takes almost an opposite tactic, where montage acts as a phantasmagorical vision of how Violet has been swept up in events so quickly that the transition seems farcically quick. The stage performances place Violet’s face dead center, taking up nearly the entire frame, so the songs feel intimate and personal even as a theoretical diegetic audience lurks on the opposite end of the camera. Fast cuts to memories and daily experiences from Violet’s life spliced with the music give us more subtle context to our protagonist's inner conflicts than one would reasonably expect from a film apparently greenlit to sell cover albums.
This doesn’t make Teen Spirit particularly thought-provoking or thematically dense; the music is very solid cover work, but the exposed seedy underbelly of pop music pageantry is not quite the revelation it might have been a couple decades ago. Yet Teen Spirit isn’t really trying to reinvent that wheel either. Instead, it wants to give us an engaging character for us to take this journey with, and the film's writing and direction, courtesy of Max Minghella, are completely up to the task of making this rendition memorable.